Alberta’s New Democrats have made history in defeat, becoming the first one-term government in the province and breaking with the succession of decades-long political dynasties that have governed it since its creation.
Over four years of NDP rule, Rachel Notley ushered in one of the most dramatic periods of change Alberta has seen in decades, including new rules on climate and taxation. However, her premiership coincided with a period of profound economic struggle that sowed provincewide frustration and undermined her bid for re-election.
In her upbeat concession speech, Notley acknowledged her party’s difficult circumstances, but stressed no regrets.
“My friends, four years ago Albertans hired us to do a very big job, at a very difficult time," she said.
"We did that job with purpose. And we did it with integrity.”
The NDP was easily eclipsed by Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party on Tuesday night, with its seat total in the legislature cut by more than half. And the party’s popular vote total has fallen by roughly eight percentage points to 33 per cent, with a majority of polls reporting.
Still, Ms. Notley made it clear she would not resign and will instead serve as official opposition leader. Despite a bruising, negative campaign, she urged her supporters to embrace the new task of opposing Mr. Kenney’s government while supporting his right to form it.
“I wish him and his government well. We all do, we must. Because we all love Alberta.”
Mr. Kenney, her incoming successor, is a former federal cabinet minister who returned to Alberta and helped unite the province’s two main right-wing parties. He has promised to undo many of Ms. Notley’s legislative changes. Mr. Kenney has vowed to focus on cutting taxes and regulations in a bid to create jobs in Alberta’s energy-dominated economy and rebuild from the deep recession that dominated the first half of the NDP’s time in government.
Ms. Notley’s party lagged the UCP in all the polls released during a month-long campaign marked by attack ads where the NDP alleged Mr. Kenney surrounded himself with “extremist” social conservatives. A number of homophobic, racist and white-nationalist comments made by some of Mr. Kenney’s candidates further inflamed the campaign and helped Ms. Notley close the gap with her opponent in late polling. In the end, it was not enough.
When not focusing on her rival, the NDP Leader argued that after being dealt a poor economic hand dictated by global energy prices, her government did what it could to manage the downturn and chose to run deficits rather than cut public services. She promised to balance the books in 2023-2024, a year after Mr. Kenney’s fiscal plan, while creating a provincewide system of subsidized child care.
Despite an evening of tears and the party’s failure to hold onto a number of seats in Calgary, two of Ms. Notley’s most senior ministers struck a note of defiance as they now prepare to move over to the opposition benches.
Sarah Hoffman, Alberta’s outgoing health minister and deputy premier, said she was ready to stand up to Mr. Kenney and defend her record in office. “Alberta’s has moved quite far forward…two steps forward, one step back,” she said.
David Eggen, the outgoing education minister, said the result shows Alberta is moving toward a two-party system and Mr. Kenney will not have a free hand to govern as he wishes. “Alberta has stepped forward and will not go back. We’ll be there to make sure that happens,” he said.
One of the people watching Ms. Notley’s concession speech was Ray Martin, who led the NDP from a 16-seat opposition in the mid-1980s – the party’s best result up to that time – to zero seats in the early 1990s. He said he was disappointed with the loss, but was confident in the party with Ms. Notley at the helm.
“They’ll be a strong opposition. The NDP’s future in Alberta is strong. They now need to stand up for a record they should be proud of,” he said. “Another election is coming in four years.”
On May 5, 2015, Ms. Notley won power in a province that had grown accustomed to economic prosperity. Her victory was dubbed the second miracle on the Prairies, after conservative Ralph Klein’s win two decades earlier. She promised to run a government based on hard work, grit and a faith in the future.
The rookie leader, who had only taken over the leadership of the NDP months earlier, had secured a majority and the first change in Alberta’s governing party since 1971. The night had been a disaster for then-premier Jim Prentice and the Progressive Conservatives, who lost control of the legislature for the first time in nearly 44 years.
“I was seven years old when my Dad was first elected to the legislature of this province, and that was the same year that the Conservatives first took power,” she told the crowd.
“I was 51 when we ended the era of one-party rule. Today, politics in Alberta has changed forever. Governing in Alberta should never again be a divine right but always, always an earned privilege.”
Ms. Notley said that night that her first order of business was finding money to hire thousands of new teachers after the previous government had allocated no funds for hires in the province’s fast-growing school system.
She had a long list of promises, contained in a platform constructed from positions that had been endorsed by Albertans at the time. Among them: a pledge to raise corporate taxes to 12 per cent from 10 per cent; a move toward a progressive tax system, breaking with the province’s flat tax by creating a top bracket of 15 per cent; an oil and gas royalty review; and a commitment to increase funding for health and education. Four years later, the party has put a check mark beside each of those promises.
However, that night’s victory speech was the high point of Ms. Notley’s personal popularity, according to Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown. Mr. Kenney’s UCP has led in every poll released since the party’s creation in 2017.
Once in office, the NDP moved quickly on a far-reaching legislative agenda, often paying inadequate attention to an economy in free fall, according to Ms. Brown. With more than 100,000 jobs being lost amid a global downturn in oil prices and monthly unemployment figures reaching a two-decade high, government ministers often responded that the province still had the strongest employment figures in the country. It was little comfort for the unemployed.
Despite the economic malaise, the New Democrats introduced a carbon tax and emissions cap on the oil sands as part of a bid to secure social licence to construct a pipeline to the ocean. No pipeline has been built yet, but Ms. Notley has said she expects construction on the Trans Mountain expansion to start within months.
The government also hiked the hourly minimum wage to $15, brought about a curriculum review, strengthened rules for gay-straight alliances in schools, updated the labour code and introduced new health and safety rules on farms. Corporate and union donations to political parties were also banned.